Norberto Rodriguez’s “ART, AMIRITE?” at Maitland Foley Gallery, LA

The performance artist on living as his alter-ego for 36 years, and finally letting him go

In a fascinating (albeit potentially difficult to understand via words) artistic endeavor, Cuban-born Norberto Rodriguez of NOR(BERT)O inc. has created “ART AMIRITE?“—a show at LA’s Maitland Foley which is a collection of objects, artworks and artifacts gathered throughout the life of the late Bert Rodriguez. From the brain of Norberto (who re-emerged into the world the day after Bert’s death), the show is part performance art, part real life, part exploration of life, death and imagination—with waves of humor lapping at the viewer’s feet. We spoke with the artist about when and why performance art works, making work for yourself or for an audience, and what happens now that Bert’s gone.

Can you tell us a little about the invention or birth of Bert?

So, the first time I was called Bert was my first day of elementary school. My kindergarten teacher slaughtered my real name (Norberto) when pronouncing it and after the fifth try or something, got frustrated and called me Bert instead. I adopted it and from then on, Bert was, and basically everyone went with it. It went so far that at some point in his life, he forgot he even had another name. The thing is though, Bert, always felt like and often spoke as if someone else was either watching, observing, consoling, comforting, occasionally grabbing the wheel when the shit hit the fan, etc. And it wasn’t until Bert thought of creating the Museum (which is his apartment) and we ended up being in Cuba for the first time on our 40th birthday, did he start really realizing my presence and influence. So, once we both realized where this was all headed, Bert decided that he could finally let go and I would take over. Bert went to sleep on May 30, 2016 and Norberto woke up on his 41st Birthday, on May 31, 2016.

Is Bert an entirely separate entity from you?

We are the same person physically, I mean I’m sure I got a little fatter or something but, nothing’s really changed there. Where we differ is that I made him up because life is hard and I needed someone to drive and deal with some of the bullshit while I figured out what the hell all of this means. So, we’re #differentbutsamesame. He made art, so he could realize he was art and once he became what he always was (just an idea in the form of a ton of stuff you can potentially sell) there was no more reason for him to be here. That said, I’ve only been Norberto now for a few weeks so he’s still lingering. Kind of like one of those farts that travels back and forth across a room for a few minutes.

One of our staff members saw Bert at FORM Arcosanti reading out bedtime poems, keeping secrets and burying himself in a hole as festival-goers took care of his head. Did you or Bert know his death was imminent?

Yes. At that point, the plans were made and he knew his last day would be the day before my 41st birthday this year. I would even say that at FORM, he was basically packed and ready to go. That was an interesting time for me because I had been having really profound thoughts about actually dying. It felt as though every time I spoke with someone, I wouldn’t see [them ever again] after saying my goodbyes. I was thinking about plans that would need to take place should I really die, etc. It had become very real.

What do you think he wanted to achieve in his final days?

Honestly, he felt pretty good about everything he’d done. He was relatively at peace about it all. He was pretty content to have had an incredible life full of all these weird adventures, stories, feelings, art, feeling like shit, and doing hurtful things and doing generous kind things. I mean the guy has a Museum in his name and everything he did is now art. That’s insane and hilarious to me. What else could he possibly have wanted?

Do you feel like performance art works just as well if the audience doesn’t necessarily realize it’s performance art? (Perhaps even better?)

That’s a slippery slope. Yes, but also no. For me, entertaining the idea that Bert’s entire life could be art and subsequently have some kind of heightened meaning, perceptibility or value opens my mind to the possibility that everything and anything can actually be art. And, if everything is art then I don’t need art anymore. Everything can feel like what art feels like when we really see the art in it. Like when someone finds god or understands the gravity of love or something. If I can prove to myself that that is possible by making some stupid thing like art and [making] that idea stick, then I win at life and everyone else can win at it too.

I believe we still need art… because we need to understand what isn’t art.

That said, I believe we still need art—as a cultural construct—because we need to understand what isn’t art. We only understand things completely by the existence of their opposites or dualities. So the good news is art will be around for a long time. At least until the singularity destroys us all.

With an approach to art that’s possibly difficult for some viewers, do you create and perform for others—or is it purely for yourself and a desire to express yourself, regardless of the reaction and feedback?

Well, that’s the reason I’m going to continue to make art after this first piece, Bert’s life and all that. Although I can see a future where I won’t need art because everything around me will feel like it already is, I know that’s not the case for the rest of us. The thing about art which is fundamentally different than other forms of expression is 1) it doesn’t have to be entertaining and 2) it’s the most effective way of affecting others by means of affecting yourself. You change your mind when you make art and, by proxy, create an opportunity for others to change theirs as well using the residue or artifacts of your change as a catalyst for their own.

So, yeah, everything I do is in the service of others. What I get out of it is an amazing life and funny stories to tell my grandkids—or my students if I end up like “one of those.” What I get by calling it art is that I can then share these ideas with everyone and see what happens. Kind of like how science publishes theories in journals, I publish my findings in galleries and museums. Without a public to react and offer feedback, nothing changes ever.

This show at Maitland Foley is the first in a series—will the entire series be focused on Bert and his life/experiences?

Bert will eventually just be one artwork of many that I’ll have made by the end of my actual, biological life. Unless of course the singularity destroys us all.

Opening tomorrow, Saturday 18 June, at LA’s Maitland Foley gallery (6130 Wilshire Blvd), “ART AMIRITE?” will have a special artist’s preview from 6PM to 8PM tomorrow for which Rodriguez will conduct a lecture. Runs through 30th July.

Images courtesy of Maitland Foley